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Russian Circles - Geneva

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Artist: Russian Circles

Album: Geneva

Label: Suicide Squeeze

Review date: Nov. 5, 2009

The evolution from metal-informed post-rock renegades to thunderous sludge of the same variety has been a pretty quick one for Chicago trio Russian Circles. Their 2006 debut, Enter, was a technically proficient album stuffed with headbanging riffs that sounded like a leaner, meaner version of fellow Second City trio Pelican, the more famous (but less ambitious) one-trick pony you read about last week. 2008’s Station was a bit different, slower and more stereotypically post-rock. In figuring out a new direction, they leaned more toward the template of climactic melodrama and less on their skills as musicians. It was nice to see something new, but it also wasn’t as thrilling.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say this was inevitable, but third time’s the charm: Welcome to Geneva, the album where Russian Circles merge the best elements of their first two releases, add a touch of cello, violin, trumpet, trombone and piano, and wind up with their most formidable collection of songs yet.

I wonder how much of a difference bassist Brian Cook made in the proceedings. The former Botch and current These Arms Are Snakes member was an infrequent contributor on previous outings, but after a joint Snakes-Circles tour, Cook slotted in for the duration of Geneva. He’s said recently that These Arms Are Snakes were moving away from stop-start post-hardcore theatrics and more in a groove-oriented direction. It sometimes seems as if that might have affected him on a subconscious level when bringing his talents to the Circles: The star of album opener “Fathom” might be drummer Dave Turncrantz, but the low end-loving riff suggests Cook had considerable input. As Daniel Levin Becker noted in his Station review, Russian Circles are “nothing but suspense and transition.” That may have been true for previous albums, but here I would argue suspense is part of the transition. The driving bass is part of the thrill of these songs and the ongoing evolution of this band.

This isn’t to say Turncrantz or guitarist Mike Sullivan are in any way lacking. Both put in some of the best performances of their respective careers: Turncrantz is a demon throughout the album, sometimes dominant (“Fathom,” “Malko”) and sometimes subtle in presence (or lack thereof). Sullivan also knows when to apply his considerable guitar skills and when to go for the simple, crowd-baiting rock-out. Geneva shows Sullivan treading a careful line between dexterous metal wankery and excessive post-rock pedal play. It all crystallizes on the final two songs of the album, which also happen to be the longest of the bunch: “When the Mountain Comes to Muhammed” might be the most complete picture of Russian Circles as they currently stand, a musical summation of the past 500 or so words; closer “Philos” feels like the same song stretched out and slowed down a tick. The horns also add an extra layer of sophistication that might have otherwise been lacking.

This could very easily have been a boring retread of former glories, but Russian Circles have really outdone themselves with Geneva. This album doesn’t beg for attention – its muted cover of an unmarked airport terminal barely registers and the band isn’t prone to exploding their personalities in the press. By letting their music do all the talking, Russian Circles have told the story of their personal growth entirely in song, and it’s a growth that involves all the melodic intricacy and inventive theme-and-variation play that their contemporaries have had much greater difficulty overcoming.

By Patrick Masterson

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